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How to Talk to an Employee About Bullying Behavior

If the phrase “survival of the fittest” describes your company’s culture, it’s probably time to adopt a new approach.

Posted by Ann Snook on March 26th, 2021

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey, nearly one-third of Americans are victims of abusive conduct in the workplace and two-thirds are aware that bullying occurs in their organization.

A work environment where employees feel unsafe is not only unfair, but can also decrease productivity and give you a bad reputation with potential applicants and clients alike.

Finding the right combination of firm and fair can make confronting the bullies tricky. Here are a few expert tips on how to talk to an employee about bullying to stop their behavior and prevent future incidents.


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Don’t Assume They’re Malicious


While some workplace bullies enjoy the feeling of power that harassment brings, many don’t know that their behavior is hurting others.

“Bullies just are not socially aware. They lack empathy and communication skills” and “aren’t aware of the hurt they’ve caused,” says Catherine Mattice Zundel, Strategic HR Consultant. For example, what the bully thinks is friendly teasing might feel like harassment to the victim. Or, they might call out an employee’s mistake in front of the whole team, thinking it will be a lesson, when it actually humiliates the person.

Sit the bully down and explain how the victim perceived their behavior. Share how the victim felt after the incident(s).

Depending on the length and severity of the bullying, disciplinary action might be in order. But you should also create a training plan for the employee that will help them learn how to communicate better and build emotional intelligence.


RELATED: Investigating Workplace Bullying Allegations: 10 Tips for Success


Focus On the Facts of Perception


When confronted about their behavior, the bully could become defensive. They might make excuses for themselves or deny the allegations.

Zundel suggests focusing on the fact of the victim’s perception of the behavior as bullying rather than incident details when confronting the bully. Say:

“We’ve had a series of complaints about perceptions of interactions with you – we don’t see this with other managers. This is not acceptable and cannot continue. I don’t know what happened – I wasn’t there. But I do know one thing for a fact: several people feel they are being treated disrespectfully and that one fact has to change.”

If the bully pushes back, saying you don’t have enough information, try saying this, according to Zundel: “Maybe we can’t prove or disprove with facts that you’re engaging in bullying, but you’re perceived this way for a reason.” The bully’s behavior was perceived as hurtful and they need to be informed of that.


RELATED: How to Recognize Workplace Mobbing (and What to Do About It)


Treat Bullying the Same As Other Performance Issues


If an employee was chronically late, you wouldn’t let it slide. Not only will their productivity suffer, but can also cause project roadblocks for their colleagues. This behavior is disrespectful to coworkers and you as an employer.

You would chat with the employee about what’s causing their lateness, explain why it’s harmful and work with them on a plan to correct it, with clear next steps and potential consequences. According to Zundel, HR staff should approach workplace bullying the same way.

“Showing up late is a behavior that doesn’t work and being overly sarcastic and rude also is a behavior that doesn’t work, so you can use the same tools to resolve them,” Zundel says.

Remind the bully of your company’s anti-bullying policy and ethical standards, demonstrating how their behavior violates them. Using your policy as a guide, explain what will happen if they continue their behavior. Finally, come up with ways to correct their behavior (e.g. apologize, switch teams) and prevent future incidents from occurring (e.g. sensitivity training).


Because workplace bullying is hard to define, it can be tough for employees to determine whether or not they’re a victim or witness and, if they are, how to react. Spread the word about bullying and how to report it by printing this free poster, filling in your company’s details and hanging it in common areas.


Don’t Encourage Bullying Culture


In some industries, departments and companies, aggression and extreme competitiveness are “the norm.” However, you should try to shift your company’s culture to a more open, friendly environment in order to prevent workplace bullying.

“Don’t normalize bad behavior by dismissing it as ‘healthy aggression’ or competitiveness between coworkers,” says Emily Kuhl, founder and owner of Right Brain/Left Brain. “If the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ describes your company’s culture, it’s probably time to adopt a new approach.”

The bully might try to justify their behavior, blaming the stress of workplace competition. Be understanding and offer them support, but let them know that there’s no excuse for bullying.


When you know how to talk to an employee about bullying, the conversation should go more smoothly. Be objective, help them build empathy and let them know that bullying behavior isn’t OK in your organization. For more advice on preventing workplace harassment and bullying, watch Zundel’s full webinar for free here.

Ann Snook
Ann Snook

Marketing Writer

Ann is a marketing writer at i-Sight Software. She writes about issues related to investigations of fraud, employee misconduct, corporate security, Title IX, ethics & compliance and more.

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